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Spanish Castle Ballroom (Seattle)
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The most fabled dancehall in Seattle's history was, ironically, not even located in Seattle. And that odd geographic detail is a defining aspect of the Spanish Castle Ballroom. When constructed in 1931 by its founders, Archie Bacon and Frank Enos, the hall was purposefully situated at "Midway" -- an area located literally midway between Seattle and Tacoma. That site -- just outside of the city limits, on unincorporated county land -- was selected specifically in order to escape those towns' busybody efforts to clamp down on nightlife activities. Taken together, both the city codes restricting public dancing and the state's Prohibition laws outlawing alcoholic drinks made for tough times in the entertainment industry.
Mystery and Romance
The Spanish Castle's Grand Opening event drew huge crowds from the populations of both distant towns nevertheless. Some attendees were likely attracted by the big-band sounds of the Frankie Roth Orchestra and the promise of a great new recessed dance-floor. Others were simply drawn by the social spectacle.
Some though, must have been curious about the new building itself (located near the corner of old Highway 99, now Pacific Highway S, and the Kent-Des Moines Road). How could they not have been? Designed like some kind of storybook caricature of an ancient Moorish fortress, the building's exotic architectural details -- a stucco structure with neon accents -- successfully evoked mystery and romance and was somewhat of a roadside attraction in and of itself.
With Prohibition's repeal in 1934, the Castle began selling beer. Crowds of dancers continued packing the place. But in 1937 the owners sold off the Castle to a new partnership consisting of M. W. "Wes" Morrill (founder of Kent, Washington's First Bank) and C. L. Knutsen (a local auto dealer).
One thing that remained constant throughout those years was the house-band. Roth led his orchestra in weekly shows up through 1942 when he stepped aside and his trombonist, Gordon Greene, took over. Those World War II years proved to be the peak for the Castle -- a time when as many as 2,000 folks attended dances that were necessarily scheduled into shifts to correspond with the labor shifts in war industry factories.
Golden Era of Teen-Dances
The big-band swing dances continued regularly at the Castle up until 1962, but by 1959 their popularity had declined to the point that they were limited to just Saturday nights -- Fridays suddenly opened up. Thus, it was in the fall of 1959 that Seattle''s dominant radio DJ, Pat O'Day, booked the area's most prominent band, the Wailers, to play what would be the very first of countless rock 'n' roll teen-dances ever held at the Castle. And so began the Pacific Northwest's Golden Era of Teen-dances.
By 1961 -- when Morrill sold out to Knutsen -- various DJs like O'Day, John Stone, and Lee Perkins had booked shows into the Castle and early shows there featured such major touring stars as Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Burnett, Tony Orlando, Freddie Cannon, Ray Stevens, Johnny Rivers, Bobby Vee, Jan & Dean, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. But rock 'n' roll and pop acts weren't the only action and a good number of Country acts including national stars like Conway Twitty and Ernest Tubb also made appearances there and locals like Jack Roberts & the Evergreen Drifters, picked, yodeled, and twanged at the Castle regularly for years. [Note: One of Tubb's shows was recorded and recently released on compact disc as The Complete Live 1965 Show.]
Plenty of early local rock 'n' roll bands also got chances to play shows at the Castle, including the Adventurers, the Amazing Aztecs, the Casuals, the Checkers, the Checkmates, the Cut-Ups, the Dynamics, the Frantics, the Playboys, the Sonics, the Statics, the Swags, and the Torments. The Aztecs' singer/keyboardist, Merrilee Rush, was one kid who'd been vastly impressed by the first dance she ever attended there:
"I'll never forget the first time I went to the Spanish Castle and saw the Wailers. They are the classic. They are the epitome of rock 'n' roll from this era. Because they combined the rhythm & blues and the rock 'n' roll. ...I remember standing in front of Rich Dangel's amp and it just blew my ears off! Oh, and Gail Harris had that big deep, deep vibrato in her voice! I was just, Oh! ... I was just overcome" (Interview).
The Checkers' guitarist (and future jazz star) Larry Coryell is another player who recalls the excitement of those pioneering days: "I remember gigs at the Spanish Castle with the Checkers backing up Ray Stevens. And another time when we backed up Gene Vincent. It was the thrill of our life to play the Spanish Castle!" (Interview).
Jimi Hendrix Coming Up
One other notable young Seattle musician who developed a fondness for the Castle was a teenaged guitarist named Jimmy Hendrix. Between 1957 and 1961 Hendrix earned a local reputation for consistently showing up at various gigs and asking if he could sit in and play along. He attempted this with the Wailers, the Dave Lewis Combo, the Playboys, the Adventurers, Dynamics, and other local bands.
Many years after Hendrix had changed his name to "Jimi" and become an international rock star, his father Al would recall that his son would "go to the clubs and ask the guy could he sit in with him. He used to do that right here in Seattle when he was coming up. He used to go to the place on Old [Highway] 99, the dancehall, the Spanish Castle. He used to go there and hang around the stage and try to get in and play with some of the groups."
O'Day concurs, even recalling Hendrix's particular modus operandi:
"Well, Jimmy would come out to the Spanish Castle and would bring his Gibson amplifier with him. And, people were always blowing amplifiers [back] then. And bands would only carry one or two amplifiers. So one night, I forget who was playing -- I think it was the Checkmates who blew their amp -- and Jimmy's deal was: It was his amp: He got to play on stage. So, he's on the side of the stage and he played his axe" (Interview).
Despite being rejected on some such occasions, Hendrix eventually joined his own teen combos -- the Velvetones, Rocking Kings, Thomas and His Tomcats -- and developed his skills considerably. Hendrix's lingering fondness for Seattle's music scene is indicated by the fact that years after he left the Northwest he penned "Spanish Castle Magic" in tribute to his days hanging out at the old roadhouse. Dave Marsh probably puts it best in Louie Louie: A History of The World's Most Famous Rock Song, when he writes:
"Once you know the legend of the Wailers at the Castle and the facts of Jimi's attendance there, the lyrics of his 'Spanish Castle Magic' seem haunted by homesick nostalgia. 'It's very far away, it takes about half a day/to get there by my ah...dragonfly,' he sings, in the voice of a kid stranded a couple continents from home."
Later in the tune's lyrics Hendrix offers one last global positioning clue for the literal-minded: "No it's not in Spain."
The Wailers and the World's Fair
Meanwhile, back in the fall of 1961 O'Day and the Wailers were drawing great crowds to the Castle and it dawned on them that -- with additional hordes of visitors expected to descend on the area in a few months for the opening of the 1962 World's Fair -- a few additional bucks might be also made by producing a record that would serve as memento. And so, the DJ hauled recording gear down there, rolled the tapes, and before long the Fabulous Wailers At The Castle LP was in area record shop racks.
O'Day's liner notes included this direct pitch:
"If you visit Seattle for the World's Fair, I hope you will find it possible to stop by the Spanish Castle. ... "The Castle" is the entertainment mecca of the Seattle-Tacoma area. There is a big dance there every Friday night, but the big night is when the Wailers are at the Castle. It was on such a night, as about 2,000 teenagers danced their heads off, that we turned on the tape recorders and captured the following grooves."
Though no triumph of sound engineering, the album was a fine aural document of a typical teen-dance of the day and it became a regional bestseller that is today (now available on compact disc) widely acknowledged as a classic.
In the summer of 1963 Ian Whitcomb -- then a British student out touring the states (a bit before he launched his own music career) -- happened through Seattle and recalled in his Rock Odyssey that it was at the Castle that he was first exposed to our regional rock traditions:
"I journeyed out with a beer-bellied kid to a dance hall called the Spanish Castle to hear some of the instrumental groups who specialized in the Northwest sound. I was lucky enough that night to hear the Kingsmen play their current hit, 'Louie Louie.' They wore band jackets and looked fairly clean cut, but when they blasted out on this number the kids went wild."
Tragedy Foreshadows the End
Such teen-dances -- not to mention the many high school proms, parking lot rumbles, and amorous backseat rendezvous that also occurred at the Spanish Castle -- were definite highlights for a generation or two of local youth. But the Spanish Castle's days were, unfortunately, numbered. O'Day recalls that disaster struck in about 1966 when a tragic incident took place. Three kids were attempting to cross the roadway out in front of the Castle when they were hit by a speeding automobile. Everybody's spirits were dampened. The luster was suddenly gone, and O'Day chose to quit booking shows there soon after.
In the end, all those decades worth of magic evenings with dance and romance at the Spanish Castle came to an abrupt and permanent halt when Knutsen's sons decided to have the wonderful historic structure razed by bulldozers in April 1968. Today only magic memories remain of the Spanish Castle: After decades as the site of a modest burger joint/mini-mart, the Spanish Castle's original spot at 23003 Pacific Highway South has been the home of a Walgreens Store since January 2006.
The Wailers, The Fabulous Wailers At The Castle (Etiquette Records [ETALB 1], 1961); Ian Whitcomb, Rock Odyssey (New York: Doubleday/Dolphin, 1983); Jo Ann Smith, "Dancers Had a Ball at the 'Castle," Des Moines Times-News, March 13, 1985; Dave Marsh, Louie Louie: A History of The World's Most Famous Rock Song (Hyperion, 1993); Richard Kennedy & Grechen Schmidt, Looking Back, (City Currents, ca. 1998); Ernest Tubb, The Complete Live 1965 Show CD, Lost Gold Records, 1998; Pete Blecha Interviews with: Al Hendrix (1978-1994); Pat O'Day (1987-2002); Larry Coryell of The Checkers and The Dynamics (1984); Merrilee Rush of The Aztecs and The Statics (1987-2001); Ian Whitcomb (1995).
Note: This essay was updated on January 9, 2015.
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